“This pandemic has exposed every weakness in our food system,” says Nicole Witham, statewide coordinator of the Washington State University Food Systems Program. “It has exposed every supply chain issue”—especially early on.
“Food wasn’t showing up at food banks,” says Witham (’10 Int. Des). “Grocery stores were experiencing shortages. All of a sudden, our team was doing food-system response work,” including involvement with a statewide task force.
When lockdown orders first went into effect, Witham says, Washington state’s small farmers “lost all of their restaurant accounts and many of their wholesale accounts right off the bat. Many had to switch to online farmers market platforms or online sales.”
While traditional farmers markets opened for the 2020 season, they did so with new rules and limitations, many of them reducing numbers of vendors and drawing fewer customers.
“Many of our small farms are direct-to-market farms that rely on farmers markets,” Witham says. “These are farmers who don’t rely on a co-op. They’re not in a union. They don’t ship overseas. You need a high volume of customers to make that work. It takes a huge amount of time and effort to not only harvest that food but to then package and transport it, and set it up. Although many farmers markets opened, they were taking fewer vendors. And vendors were seeing half as many patrons.”
At the same time, some consumers statewide committed to shopping for local produce, helping to keep small farms afloat. “The markets have been slow,” agrees Jim Long, who owns the newer mom-and-pop Fresh Cut Farms just north of Spokane with his wife, Connie. “But our sales are actually up. People are interested in where their food comes from, especially this year.”
Anecdotally, Kate Smith (’18 MS Enviro. Sci.), the Northwest small farm and Latino farm educator for WSU in Skagit County, says, “There’s a lot of renewed interest in supporting local agriculture and food. But, how it’s playing out is not cut and dried.”
To continue to help support small farms during the persisting pandemic, WSU Food Systems has transitioned from in-person events and workshops to online offerings. And there’s a silver lining, says Marcia Ostrom, associate professor of food systems in the School of the Environment.
“Historically, we haven’t been able to offer courses statewide,” Ostrom says. “Something new because of COVID is we’re starting statewide bilingual English/Spanish Cultivating Success online course. It will be different in that it won’t be in-person, but we’re hoping it will increase accessibility across the state. It’s a new option.”
Cultivating Success is a step-by-step whole-farm planning course aimed at helping new and beginning farmers prepare a well thought-out strategy for their land, life, and farm business. Through the new virtual collective cohort model, participants and facilitators meet weekly via Zoom.
“Getting the Cultivating Success facilitators working together at a statewide level has been tricky, but super rewarding. There is a huge amount of shared knowledge and experience with this group, and now instead of working in a siloed, county-by-county fashion, they are leaning on one another and leveraging the skills of the whole group,” says Witham, noting the first-ever, online-only version attracted new and beginning farmers from 15 counties and two Indian reservations.
In addition to the web-based Cultivating Success course, individual technical support for small farmers from WSU Extension has continued virtually. “Now more than ever, farmers need support applying for recovery grants and loans, opening online stores, and connecting with resources to refine their systems,” Smith says.
Farm Walks, a programming staple since 2004, aren’t being held for the time being. Instead, WSU Food Systems and its organizing partner, Tilth Alliance, decided to pivot to a podcast format. A regular Farm Walk season would entail visits to eight to ten innovative farmers throughout Washington state, highlighting an aspect of their farm operation related to a specific topic.
“We started it with the idea that we needed to start to transfer knowledge from the first generation of organic farmers to the second generation of organic farmers,” Ostrom says. “We wanted to make sure that other farmers could learn from them. That’s the idea of Farm Walks. It was designed to be an experiential learning program. You can learn a lot by walking through a farm, talking with the farmers.”
The podcast aims to maintain the same mission as the on-farm Farm Walks, says Ostrom: “farmers learning from farmers.”
Pablo Silva of Silva Family Farms is the first farmer spotlight, with the goal of eight episodes of the new to be aired over the winter of 2020 and 2021.
“So, while we will not be on-farm, walking and talking as a group directly with farmers, we are still designing the podcasts to transfer knowledge from farmer-to-farmer,” says Witham, Farm Walks organizer and new podcast host. “Instead of showing up in-person to a Farm Walk, folks can now submit questions through a new Farm Walks website and tune-in whenever and wherever they’d like.”
And there’s a silver lining here, too. Since the podcast will be free to listen to, Witham says, “We think this may also be a more accessible model for those who can’t travel or afford the registration fee for the traditional Farm Walks.”
On the web
Learn more about Cultivating Success
The Spanish-language version of Cultivating Success (Cultivando Éxito)
Info about Farm Walks and the new podcast